David Cameron may have arrived late to the Better Together ‘party’, waiting until the last few days in the run-up to the Scottish referendum to intervene, but his intervention was decisive. Both he and Gordon Brown gave rousing and emotive speeches that went a long way towards swaying undecided voters and bringing them back from the brink. Thus, his role in the immediate drumroll to referendum day was pivotal and highly Prime Ministerial. However, his response to the result of the Scottish vote has swiftly turned him from appearing statesmanlike and responsible, to cynical and reckless. The glory of Scotland’s No vote that he could have transformed into a bump in his opinion polls has been squandered in favour of cheap, partisan political manoeuvring, which has lost him the faith of the Scottish people, and provided us with an excellent example of why people don’t trust politicians. I’m talking of course about him reneging on his unconditional promise of further Scottish devolution, by attaching the condition of English-only-MPs for English-only-issues, supposedly attempting to address the so-called West Lothian Question.
The West Lothian Question – over the fairness of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs voting on English issues in Westminster – is an anomaly that has caused discussion and controversy amongst constitutional scholars for decades, and dates back to well before the devolution of the late 1990s. There certainly are valid arguments for English MPs voting on purely English issues, since there is a disparity of representation that occurs if, for example, Scottish MPs vote on top-up tuition fees for English universities as they did in Westminster in 2004, yet English MPs are unable to vote in Holyrood to ensure Scottish universities charge the same fees. However, there are equally persuasive arguments that support Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs voting in Westminster on ‘English issues’, due to the fact that in the 21st century, so few issues discussed in Parliament are purely ‘English’ in nature. National defence and security, NHS spending, deficit reduction, debt repayment, educational reform, immigration policy, climate change; how many of these issues are purely English? The fact is, our United Kingdom is just that, united. We face the same issues, and more often than not require the same solutions. Welsh families face the same cost of living crisis as English ones, Scottish people face the same security risks as English ones, and Northern Irish individuals face the same health hazards as English ones.
Tristram Hunt took to Newsnight this week to bravely reiterate Miliband’s official Labour line that rushing through an answer to the West Lothian Question following a ‘house party at Chequers’, is irresponsible, and is playing fast-and-loose with the constitution without a national consultation process first. This train of thought is quite reasonable. How many average voters in Britain knew what the West Lothian Question was this time last month? It’s safe to suggest a distinct minority. This constitutional controversy has been tackled before. Kenneth Clarke chaired a Democracy Taskforce in 2005 which proposed all Westminster MPs would have the final vote on all bills before Parliament, but non-English MPs would be excluded from the consultation stage of bills only affecting England. Malcolm Rifkind took a crack at it too, addressing the ‘two class of MPs’ criticism by suggesting an English Grand Committee to debate and vote on English matters. Oliver Letwin chimed in by suggesting an additional ‘Fourth Reading’ just for English MPs to vote on in the case of English issues. My point is that the political establishment has looked at the issue before, but the general public has not. That is why rushing through a process within four months as Cameron proposes, without fully taking the public’s temperature on the issue, and presenting them with both sides of the argument is reckless. The people of Britain deserve a national conversation, a public debate, before any conclusion is rushed to.
I have outlined some of the main reasons why Cameron’s proposed action on the West Lothian Question is reckless, but what is much more sinister is his motivation for such action. Our Prime Minister has always been an instinctive politician first and foremost, and thus is highly opportunistic in nature. He is the man who took the initiative to legalise gay marriage, securing himself a legacy. He too is the leader who appointed the first British Asian Cabinet Minister, again snatching liberal ground. Both of these moves were highly commendable, but also politically manufactured. Now his political senses are called into action again. Along with other senior Tories, Cameron sees an opportunity to win back favour with Middle England, wipe out a potential Labour majority in 2015, appear patriotic, put Miliband in an awkward position, and take credit for solving the age-old West Lothian Question, all in one swoop.
If Cameron succeeds in establishing English votes for English issues, Labour’s stronghold in Scotland – a political wilderness for the Tories – will become irrelevant, perhaps even denying them a parliamentary majority on English issues, despite having a potential overall majority in the Commons. Constitutional crisis, political madness, call it what you want, but there’s no doubt that the Tories would gain enormously from such a move. Then there’s Cameron’s cynical enticement to Middle England. In a further attempt to nullify the UKIP surge, Cameron’s West Lothian response intends to appeal greatly to ‘Little Englanders’ who feel as though they would be better represented. Perhaps the consequence of this shall be the return of fox hunting! Another acute advantage of Cameron’s actions is that Ed Miliband is now backed into a corner by refusing to sign up to this English-Laws-for-English-MPs malarkey. The national press seems to have overlooked the fact that our esteemed Prime Minister has just proven himself a liar to the Scottish people as well as the rest of Britain, and are instead focusing on Miliband’s lack of commitment to England – never mind the fact that he’s proposing the most radical inner-England devolution package yet.
So, what is for certain is that addressing the West Lothian Question seems all too convenient for the Tories. In fact, Christmas appears to have come early for Mr Cameron. But Britain be warned, why should we be rushing such a monumental decision? We know why the Tories want to hurry through their initiative; it is endlessly politically advantageous for them. But what’s actually best for Britain, and for England? A swift and careless response to a persistent constitutional question mark, or a reasoned national debate on the topic, where the people of Britain are educated on the issue, and are presented with all the facts? This issue should be dealt with out in the open. Perhaps even a referendum could take place. What is for sure is that the Tory Chequers Club cannot be left responsible for handling the West Lothian Question. They have too much to gain and care too little for the consequences of their actions.
Britain, we cannot let the Tories throw our constitution out the window for cheap political gain. We must demand a debate, demand a say, demand time, demand to be heard. Let not dark political ambition overcome the rights and the will of the British people.
By Nathan Phillips